Within the past few weeks, many frightening articles have been published from media sources such as BBC News, the Guardian, the New York Times, and HuffingtonPost, just to name a few. These articles are all about the extreme decline in oceans worldwide, a decline that has surprised scientists and pessimists alike. An astonishing amount of marine life in our oceans is facing extinction.
This collapse is in large part due to the impact humans have had thus far on sharks. According to Sea Shepherd, “100 million sharks are killed each year-by longlines, by “sport” fishermen, or by a barbaric practice known as “shark finning.”
I was inspired to write this article after watching a documentary by Rob Stewart titled Sharkwater. One fact that was most shocking from the documentary is that 70% of the world’s oxygen that we breathe comes from the ocean. “Phytoplankton consumes more carbon dioxide than anything else on Earth” and converts it to oxygen. Sharks eat the fish that feed on plankton and with more and more humans preying on and eating sharks, the fish that eat phytoplankton could grow exponentially. This would in turn lead to a drastic decline in our oxygen from the ocean.
As a consequence of movies that portray sharks as vicious monsters, people now view sharks in the same way. Media latches onto any and every shark attack and the news goes worldwide. There are those who made it their duty to go out into the oceans and kill as many sharks as possible. The main target is usually the great white shark (the shark shown in the Jaws movies), which is now endangered. Sharks have been around for more than 400 million years, but just within the past few decades, 90% of the world’s shark population has been killed.
Sharks don’t eat humans because they want to. It’s actually been said that they don’t like the taste of human meat. That’s why it’s so common for a shark to just bite a human and not eat them whole as they most definitely would if they wanted to. They mistake humans for animals that are part of their diet such as seals. When people do die from a shark attack, it’s more likely that they died from blood loss than being eaten. Hippopotamuses have killed more humans than sharks. According to Sharkwater, sharks kill 5 people per year; crocodiles (who are protected animals) have killed as many people in just one year as sharks have in hundreds; elephants and tigers kill 100 people each year; execution: 2,400; illegal drugs: 22,000; road accidents: 1,200,000; starvation: 8,000,000. Sea Shepherd states that “more people are killed each year by falling vending machines than by sharks.”
Sharks are often times inadvertent victims of trawling. Trawling is a fishing method that uses nets to trawl the ocean waters and captures any and all creatures that swim in front of the nets. Animals that are captured include fish, birds, sharks, dolphins, turtles, whales, etc. All those caught as bycatch are often times thrown back into the water, dead. Sharks breathe by swimming and when they are caught by a net or a line they cannot swim and therefore suffocate.
The biggest threat to sharks is shark finning. This is the extremely unnecessary process of catching sharks, cutting off their fins, and tossing their living bodies back into the water where they die at the bottom of the ocean. Shark fins are used for shark fin soup which is more about texture than taste. Shark fin soup is an elitist symbol. Sharks of all kinds are victims of shark finning, even the harmless whale shark. Up to 73,000,000 sharks are killed every year for their fins.
Shark finning is strictly a for-profit industry and in many parts of the world is run illegally. The demand for shark fin soup is so high in China that the cost of a single shark fin has gone up immensely in recent years. Because of this high price per fin, black markets are common and abundant. Poor fisherman around the world supply the shark fins and sell them off.
Another common use for sharks is in medicinal products; shark cartilage is used in many medicines. People inaccurately believe that sharks cannot get sick and therefore have special qualities, but this is false.
As a child, even I used to be terrified of sharks. It wasn’t until Discovery channel’s Shark Week helped shed light on how brutally sharks are treated and that they are not to be feared that I realized my previous thoughts were mislead and sharks are the most misunderstood animals in our world.
Luckily, within the past few days, news of countries instating stricter regulations has been abundant. On July 5, the Bahamas not only banned shark finning, but any kind of shark fishing and increased fines; on July 6, Chile unanimously voted for a bill making shark finning illegal and increased fines from $4000 to $41,000; and on July 9, Taiwan set plans to become the first Asian country to ban shark finning at sea. The news is coming one right after the other which leaves at least this writer feeling much more optimistic about the shark population and the state of our oceans.
The next time you see sharks being misrepresented, step in and tell the truth. Let others know that sharks do not deserve the negative reputation they have gained. Rob Stewart of Sharkwater couldn’t have said it better: “The ocean is the most important ecosystem, regulating climate and feeding much of the planet. Life on land depends on life in the oceans… It’s not just about saving sharks, it’s about saving ourselves.”
Call on your government (and any government, for that matter) to ban shark finning and instate better regulations to prevent sharks from getting illegally caught as well as accidentally in trawling.
The best option is to eliminate seafood from your diet completely. Further, if you travel to places with sharks or participate in any form of swimming/diving/snorkeling/etc. that involves sharks, make sure that the trips you take part in are reliable and safe for sharks. Don’t give your money to a company that exploits sharks or any other marine animal. Also, make sure not to purchase any medicine that includes shark parts or shark souvenirs.
People don’t see on a daily basis the effect we have on our waters and therefore don’t see how vital it is that we protect them and all in it to the best of our ability. It’s past time that we take responsibility for our actions and turn this decline around before it is too late for marine life, oceans, and humans as a whole.
Image Source: “Sharkwater” by Rob Stewart